In late 2014, when I got the jury summons, I had just quit my engineering job at a fuel cell technology startup in Vancouver. I wanted to take some time to figure out what to do with my life, find a wife, and maybe start my own company. The Crown had other ideas.
I got a letter in the mail. “Jury summons,” it read.
They pull the jury summons randomly from the voter records, you see, and I had just voted for incumbent Vancouver mayor and militant cyclist Gregor Robertson. What can I say? I like bike lanes.
I showed up at the appointed time and was instructed to wait my turn, sitting in a grid of plastic chairs in the basement of the courthouse with all the others who had been summoned.
All kinds of people showed up. Vancouver is a fairly diverse city, especially the greater Vancouver metropolitan area. The voter roll was obviously representative of this diversity in a way you don’t always see on the street, bus, and train. People mostly hang around others like them, both in class and culture, even commuting at different times and by different modalities.
We waited for our turn, quietly cracking jokes and making small talk. There were a couple hundred of us total, split between two days of jury selection.
“This can’t be normal,” we thought. “Surely they don’t do this every time.” It wasn’t, and they don’t.
The officials explained to us that the trial was going to be five to six months long, and the selection process would be rigorous, so they had called in a lot of people.
Five to six months? An explanation made its way around: “Terrorism.”
After a few hours, they called me in for selection. It was a special, more secure courtroom built recently for high profile cases like terrorism where there was elevated risk of security problems. The defendants’ seats at the back of the room were protected by what looked like bulletproof glass. There were no windows, no pews for an audience, and guarded entrances. The audience was in an adjacent room, connected by closed-circuit television and thick plexiglass windows. That’s where the reporters sat.
I stood up in front of the judge, who I later learned was named Justice Catherine Bruce, to be sworn in. She asked me questions about my eligibility, while the lawyers inspected me.
“The defendants are accused of charges of terrorism, and are of the Muslim faith. Do you swear that you are able to evaluate the evidence without prejudice in this case?” I indicated that I was. I had no problem considering the facts dispassionately, though one always wonders if that’s really possible. Privately, I considered this to be an interesting philosophical problem, and thus an interesting challenge for myself. Fortunately, the common law court process is designed not to place too much philosophical burden on lowly jurors like myself, so I figured I’d be fine.
“Have you read anything in the news about this case, anything at all, that might influence your judgement?” I try not to read too much news, so I hadn’t heard anything about the case. Apparently it was big news.
“Do you have any connection with the accused?” I didn’t.
“Do you have any reason it would be an unreasonable hardship for you to be a juror for six months?” I was passing myself off as “temporarily retired” at the time, so I really didn’t have any excuse at all. Besides, it seemed like it would be an interesting and educational adventure, and duty is duty. I’m partly American, but not so American as to disobey the Crown.
The lawyers signaled that they had no objections, which meant I had now been selected, and was to go sit in the jury box. I quietly greeted the other jurors, and took my place while we waited to see who else would get picked.
This is when I got my first look at the defendants. A white man and white woman, well into their 30s or 40s, him in a suit, her in hijab, looking somewhat dejected in their respective plexiglass boxes. John Nuttal and Amanda Korody. Man and wife. Obviously of lower class, at least recently; you can read the stresses of poverty on someone’s face, and perhaps something of the personality that got them there.
When I heard that the trial was for Islamic terrorism, I had expected foreigners, or the children of immigrants, radicalized out of alienation in their new society. But they were recent converts, and very obviously Nth-generation Canadian. Curiously anomalous specimens. What had happened in their lives to get them here? The anthropologist in me perked up.
We watched as potential jurors flunked for all sorts of reasons. Some would have excuses, like one woman who had just gotten a job and was going to school, and couldn’t afford to risk those opportunities. Some of the excuses were better than others. Some obviously made up. The judge was lenient, and let anyone go who really wanted to. But she also eliminated a few who seemed a little too eager to be on the jury bench. The lawyers also eliminated some with their veto.
The result was fourteen jurors, out of the large crowd who had come. Fourteen because they needed at least twelve, and figured some of us might drop out over the long trial. Thirteen of us were middle class and white. The fourteenth was a quiet Chinese girl, a student at the local university. It was a striking contrast to the demographics of the selection sample overall, but we didn’t talk about it too much.
Thus ended the selection.
When the trial itself began, we quickly moved through the opening introductions, and the Crown prosecutor, a goateed man in early middle age, began presenting his evidence. The basic parameters of the case were these: the defendants had placed what they thought was a C4-loaded pressure-cooker bomb outside the British Columbia Parliament building in Victoria. Undercover police officers had worked with them through the whole process and recorded it extensively. The evidence amounted to something like two hundred hours of video and audio surveillance recordings, and extensive testimony from the officers involved. No wonder it was going to take six months.
The Story Of John And Amanda
As we watched the footage, and listened to John ramble about his plans and past experiences, I managed to piece together the broad strokes of their story.
They had both grown up and gone to school in British Columbia, and were from presumably normal Canadian families. Amanda had an interest in alternative fashion and Japanese manga-style art, becoming reasonably talented. We could see her art when they showed us, and the public, the private contents of their computer. Common if not typical interests, probably picked up in high school. John had wanted to join the military, but didn’t make it. He loved the movie Rambo III, and would refer to it often, especially the Mujahideen.
Somehow they ended up with anti-imperialist political tendencies, also not uncommon. Relatedly, their social circles over time tended towards the grungy, almost crust punk. I don’t know the details, but I spent some time in similar circles myself, having lived in a punk house for a while, and the aesthetics were unmistakable.
When 9/11 happened, John said he cheered it on instinctively. Finally, the Great Satan was getting its due for all the bombs dropped on the Middle East. I found this interesting because it meant their anti-Western terrorist affinities existed before any religious affinity for Islam.
Somewhere along the way, they ended up in poverty and on heroin. Again, the details are obscure, but in underworld social scenes, drugs are common, and there is a well-known pipeline from otherwise normal misfits to drug addiction and often death. For some years, this was their life.
In that dark place, one of their friends gave them a Quran and introduced them to Islam. They read the whole book together, and became convinced that it was divinely inspired. They sought out someone who could tell them more, and began initiating themselves into Islam.
The conversion seemed quite genuine. They went to the mosque, quit all drugs, and read the Quran together. They knew—and properly used—dozens of Arabic religious phrases. In court, Amanda would spend some of her time copying out memorized Quran verses on a pad of paper.
But John had a seemingly cartoonish view of Islam at times, as a sort of religious veneer over an underground global brotherhood of heroic Mujahideen. It was hard to tell when he was telling stories and when he was fantasizing, but this seemed to have manifested in him asking around at mosques where he could sign up for jihad and get his AK-47. They didn’t tell us how the police originally got on the case, but it’s not hard to imagine.
Which brings us back to the trial. The police assigned an undercover officer, the main prosecution witness, to make contact and see what the hell was going on. The officer was a middle-aged Moroccan Muslim, perfect for this purpose. They made contact at a convenience store, and the officer pretended to need help finding a runaway niece. As they sat in the car chatting, John noticed the Quran in the back seat, and immediately launched into describing his terrorist fantasy plans to this apparently like-minded Muslim.
From stealing guns and storming a military base, to stealing a nuclear submarine, to shooting people with a modified paintball gun, John had big plans. It was clear the police had to do something.
But John and Amanda couldn’t seem to actually do much, either. For months, the undercover officer would occasionally hang out, buy them lunch, and talk with them about their plans, while surveillance officers bugged their apartment and kept an eye on them to see what they did. Nothing ever went anywhere.
Eventually, the officer started pushing a bit harder, getting them to settle on a pressure cooker bomb inspired by the Boston bombing, and offering to acquire some C4 and set them up with fake passports to get out of the country after the deed. Facilitating nearly every aspect of the plot, the police subtly moved things along, leaving just enough work for John and Amanda that they would be unambiguously incriminated when all was done.
We watched on camera as they pieced the “bomb” together and blasted anti-Israel nasheeds so loud they could be heard outside the motel room. The police provided fake C4, which was just plasticine, but also a small piece of real C4, so that the device would technically contain explosive materials, and the Crown could get them on yet another criminal charge.
When the time came for the verdict, the instructions were clear: leaving aside such issues as entrapment, speaking technically, did they or did they not do the deed? I’m bound by duty not to say anything about the deliberation, but it’s public record that the jury found them guilty.
After several months more argument about the fine points of the law, the judge acquitted them on the basis of entrapment, and released them. I can’t say I disagree. I hope they are doing well and staying out of trouble.
It was a farce. A fake crime, manufactured by the police, at enormous public expense. All totaled up, between the approximately 120 police officers involved in a case that spanned at least a year, at least a year of court time, press attention, and time out of the lives of jurors and defendants, it amounted to a significant expenditure of scarce resources. I have no doubt the total bill was in the tens of millions of dollars. What was it all for? Was it just waste? How did it happen?
There are probably ways that the police could have handled it better, had their procedures or incentives been better. One rumor is that they were under pressure to produce terrorism convictions, which is why they didn’t take the de-escalation opportunities they had. For example, after having made contact, John expressed doubt at a few points about whether terrorism was permissible under Islam. The undercover officer sidelined those concerns. They could have instead connected John with a credible scholar to talk him through a deradicalization process. The undercover officer could have attempted such a process himself. They could have just surveilled John and Amanda, and sat on the case making sure they didn’t do any terrorism, while this deradicalization was underway. They didn’t.
But deradicalization is hard. Barring simple cases of the ignorant and confused, your counterparty generally no longer believes in what you believe, often for good reason, and furthermore doesn’t believe you. You have to actually understand where your counterparty is coming from, which is something liberalism is notoriously bad at. You have to build real trust, which is difficult and fragile when you are not actually sincere, but just playing the part of deradicalization counselor. You need to be able to offer a better way, which may be difficult if your counterparty has some legitimate grievance with the system.
I sympathize with the police for this reason. They had a bunch of radicals running around talking about blowing things up. They could have met up with some real terrorist cell and done something real. The police had to do something.
But let’s back up a bit. How could this have been prevented? How did it happen in the first place?
How did they fall out of the bottom of society and into a subculture of drug abuse and anti-social ideology? This isn’t even just about Islam. Radical Islam provided a ready-made terrorist ideology, but the receptivity to radicalization and terrorism clearly predated it. Islam might have even provided some positive social fabric and moral guidance in an otherwise nihilistic underworld environment. Why does an antisocial underworld exist at all, and how did John and Amanda get into it?
Society And The Radical Underworld
In any society, there is a vast network of interrelated institutions, organized into a rough pyramid. The nexus of power and politics, the state, sits at the top, and all the various functional components are organized beneath. Government bureaucracies, established companies, startup companies, small businesses, nonprofits, university departments, strong families, religious parishes, and a vast interconnecting mycelium of informal social fabric. This forms the main structure of a functional society.
But by default, it takes certain qualities, choices, and resources to stay on track into the institutions of proper society. You need to go to school, stay out of certain social groups and get into others, study and behave in particular ways to build social capital that can get you into the official institutions of society. What happens to those of us who fail to do this?
Those who fail to get in, are pushed out, or are never convinced in the first place, fall into the unregulated between-spaces. The underworld. Improper society. The human landfill of people who are discarded by the system.
Judging by their interests and associations, John and Amanda were already off the main track by high school, and on the track to the underworld. They were on welfare, and I heard little of real jobs.
Lacking participation in a functional social fabric, such people become easy to radicalize. It’s not just that they are at the bottom of the social hierarchy, but that they are barely participating in the normal social system at all. It’s very easy to believe society is bad when you’re not part of it.
This reveals a problem with a social order, like ours, that incorporates people mostly on the basis of a local economic calculus, especially in the context of increasingly tracked and expensive credentialing: it’s easy to fall out, and hard to get back in. A lot of people end up outside, and become not just discarded refuse, but active social liabilities. Idle hands, as they say, are the tools of the devil. The local economic calculus has no reason to clean up these liabilities, only to find assets.
I don’t know how to measure this rigorously, but I think this has been getting worse for decades: the institutionalized proper part of society is receding and becoming inflexible, and the disorganized underworld advancing, though nominal productivity continues to rise. We see this in statistics on underemployment, NEETs, marriage rates, people dropping out of social participation, etc.
But many of these measures, employment in particular, will underestimate the problem; the economy is increasingly home to what is effectively underworld activity: scams, fake projects, ill-advised speculative investments driven by too much money with too few useful things to do. I don’t know that I can speak to the average, but for many of the young people I know, purposeful positions within functional institutions are rare. Their fathers and grandfathers were men of society, working in established companies, serving real customers, and commanding national infrastructure. Most of them went through college fine, but had little guidance from society, and were spat out into a weak job market dominated by companies without much in the way of legible higher purpose or functionality—fake institutions.
The psychological impact of these fake institutions is to cut one off from the main functionally organized social fabric. You feel it less directly than exclusion, but how can one appreciate and support the purposeful order of society if one’s own position is not really part of that order? So again, just looking at economic marginalization will miss a large part of the story: even when you’re in, the functional logic of your job, and thus your tie to the larger system of purposeful social order, is obscure or missing.
This alienation is often not total. People often have one foot in, and one foot out. John and Amanda were married, but didn’t have jobs. Many people have jobs, but have no prospects at marriage. Some people have jobs and marriages, but no social life integrated with normal society. The more you’re integrated into a functionally organized society you can believe in, the less the potential, and reason, for radicalization.
If I’m right, growing radicalization online, mass shootings, extremist ideology, terrorism and so on aren’t happening simply because there is a growth in possibility, but also a growth in demand. Look at the people involved. Look at their faces. Look at their lives. They are the kind of people who have fallen out of the system. NEETs, incels, the fatherless, and the unpopular are vastly over-represented in this underworld. And the trends aren’t in their favor; it seems proper society is increasingly frayed, becoming weaker in its ability to provide positive leadership.
I don’t know for sure, but I’ve met enough social dropouts to see the patterns. I would bet that John and Amanda fell into the underworld in the first place because society failed to give them purposes they could believe in, and failed to make use of them. Maybe they couldn’t get in, or maybe didn’t see a reason to. Either way, they found other things to believe in, and other things to do.
Reintegrating The Underworld
Ultimately, this social underworld is everyone’s problem, and therefore the state’s problem. Everyone else individually can mostly ignore the problem, simply excluding the growing population of misfits and apostates from their own domain while they fulfill their own duties.
But ultimately, something has to be done.
First, because there’s actually a lot of raw human capital that slips into these between-spaces, just not in a format that’s easy for current institutions to inspire, absorb, and rehabilitate. At the time of this whole affair, John and Amanda were able-bodied, and even quite bright, when they weren’t lethargic from the methadone that helped them recover from addiction. What they lacked was the discipline and structure that for most people comes from their participation in a functional social fabric. Such re-absorption requires new institutions, and the backing of the state. Without the backing of the state, the social gains of reintegration aren’t enough to justify the effort for any private actor.
Seth Largo’s recent article on the social integration of a generation of Mexican-Americans through the war and Apollo years is a great example: the author’s Mexican-American grandfather joined the military during the war, and then worked at a government-integrated contractor and on the Apollo project after the war. His descendants married into mainline American social fabric, and are well-integrated in society. A large need for functionally organized human capital on the part of the state, like a war effort or moon shot, can drive the creation and extension of institutions, and the absorption and training of human capital, that would otherwise end up drifting around outside of proper society.
Second, there is the humanitarian concern of needing to rehabilitate those who fall out of society, so they don’t just live a life of alienated misery. John and Amanda may have been free, and basically fed and housed, but theirs wasn’t an existence of hope and purpose. The need for belonging and meaning is not a need that we acknowledge much these days—it’s not part of the liberal ontology—but it’s nearly as necessary to healthy human life as food and water.
Sometimes, if done by the institutions of proper society, this might look like work programs, where the government, or a church, or some other humanitarian-inclined institution takes a population of otherwise idle people, and finds ways to give them purpose and make use of their labor, so that they can be part of society. I have spent many days walking on trails built by such people in the labor programs of past decades, and I have dishes at home made by people from “less employable” populations, from a company that has this explicit humanitarian logic. This is not unheard-of.
Strictly speaking, these efforts are not always economically worthwhile. It is sometimes more efficient to employ those who are well-integrated, and simply ignore or liquidate those who don’t make it in the system. But this just serves to illustrate the implicit brutality of purely economic logic. It might be unrealistic or foolish to extend the ethical imperative too far, but there is at least some humanitarian responsibility to make sure people who are supposed to be part of our society reliably have opportunities to participate in its functional structure.
The third reason is that if you don’t rehabilitate the social underworld, it will occasionally be turned to nefarious purposes. A bunch of human capital sitting around alienated from the main functional structure of society will be ready resources for anti-social ideologies. Again, this is a strong candidate to explain the recent rise in antisocial attacks and radicalization, and what happened to our own John and Amanda.
The few systems we have to deal with this underworld of social liabilities—police, censorship, disruption of underworld networks, de-empowerment, and social shaming—are brutal, expensive, and sometimes ineffective. They have their place as part of a larger suite of solutions, but as the underworld problem gets worse, these half-solutions just get applied with ever more vigor, and don’t solve the root problem. They in effect just push people away even further; making it clear to them that society is persecuting them, that they are not welcome, and therefore that they must radically remake or destroy society for any acceptance at all. This is, ironically, part of what holds these underworld ideologies together, and makes them dangerous.
This is not to say that escalating persecution of the ideological underworld won’t work in the sense of yielding victory for the hegemonic incumbent. Power wins. But that escalation is occasionally inefficient and brutal, and the need for it is indicative of serious structural problems in society.
This is part of the genesis of the Christian principle of love for the downtrodden. Both in social logic, and in historical causality. If proper society doesn’t reach out, empathize with, and re-integrate people who have become alienated and even antisocial, the problem just gets worse, because someone else will. Idle hands, again, are the tools of the devil. It’s not just about the poor, but about people who aren’t fitting in and getting along, too.
In the Roman Empire, an explosion of cults and street prophets accompanied the growth of their unintegrated underworld as the main social fabric frayed. Early Christianity flourished because it offered purpose and compassion to the excluded of that time, who amounted to a serious coalition once radicalized to the point of martyrdom.
Islam worked similarly for John and Amanda: it reached out to them and offered them meaning, while proper society had failed to do so with credibility.
So let’s have some sympathy, even for those who may seem lost in the underworld. Sometimes they’re there because there isn’t anyone else reaching out to them and giving them a purpose.
Escape From The Underworld
My experience on this trial forms an interesting case study in its own right. I’ve done my time in various underworld scenes. I’ve hung out and participated with more than my fair share of hooligans, hackers, crust punks, and revolutionaries. You wouldn’t be wrong at all to say that I have been seriously radicalized, confused, and lost at various times in my life, left to invent my own social purposes, which were usually wrong.
I went into the trial with a skeptical attitude. Surely there is a more efficient way to decide cases. It all seemed like ridiculous overkill. Was the whole thing legitimate at all? I’m sure there are always improvements to be had, but sitting in the jury bench for six months, watching our ancient rituals of justice play out, I came to appreciate them. I came to respect the authority they represented, and feel a little more at ease in the society they protected.
I was drafted into service of the Crown, placed in a position of solemn responsibility, and given instructions as to my duties. I carried them out proudly. And the interesting thing is, it deradicalized me a little bit—watching the whole thing play out. It deradicalized me much more effectively than any conceivable direct deradicalization or suppression effort could have. Being told by some toadie of the system that you’re wrong and bad doesn’t change anyone’s mind; it just drives you further away, or at best scares you into submission. But participating in purposeful and functionally organized social institutions helps us understand what’s good about society, and how our own lives fit into it, and thus unlocks much more of our potential. Participation in shared social purpose is what makes society real for us.
If the underworld seems to be advancing, and the youth are increasingly radicalized, then it might serve us well to worry less about how to combat radicalization directly, and worry more about the ways our proper social fabric is decaying, receding, and failing to take leadership in pulling people up into higher purposes. The solution may not always be to suppress and control people radicalized against society, ruling them through fear and power, but also to build a stronger society that commands more respect and has more purposeful places for everyone.